The Grapes of Wrath Questions and Answers

John Steinbeck

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting The Grapes of Wrath questions.

How do motifs further our understanding of the themes within The Grapes of Wrath?

A “motif” in a work of literature is a subject, theme, or general idea that is repeated many times. (Note: a motif is similar to a theme but with an important difference: a theme is a central idea; motifs serve to further develop and enhance themes through repetition.)

Here are the dominant motifs in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:

The Tyranny of Industrialized Agriculture:

The tractors have come to plow under the homes of the squatters. These farmers have no legal right to the land. When the tractor driver tries to explain that he has a family to feed, and that he is just doing his job, the tenant argues:

But for your three dollars a day fifteen or twenty families can't eat at all. Nearly a hundred people have to go out and wander on the roads for your three dollars a day. Is that right?

Industrialization strips humanity from farming and farmers:

Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank - or the Company - needs - wants - insists - must have - as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time.

The senselessness of valuing profit over people:

The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up? And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit.

The Faceless Enemy:

"No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it."

Violations of Civil and Human Rights:

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange.

Resilience of the People:

“Women can change better’n a man,” Ma said soothingly. “Woman got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head.”
“Man, he lives in jerks-baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk-gets a farm and looses his farm, an’ that’s a jerk. Woman, its all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. We ain’t gonna die out. People is goin’ on-changin’ a little, maybe, but goin’ right on.

How is family structure presented in The Grapes of Wrath?

The novel begins with a typical patriarchal family structure; that is, man as head of the family, women in secondary roles, and children, of course, at the bottom, with male children being of higher status than females (although age in female children does outrank those of younger male children, if only temporarily).

The men are the first to asses the dire situation. Even though they are the titular heads of household, there is a force greater than themselves: the weather.

Men first:

The men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn…

Then women:

And the women came out of the houses to stand beside the men and see if they would break. The women studied the men’s faces carefully, for the corn could go, as long as something else remains.

Then finally, the children:

. . .and the children sent exploring senses out to see if the men and women would break.

Both women and children have a sense of security, modest though it may be, as long as their men are still in charge:

The women do not see the “break” yet and are relieved. The children notice too. Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole.

As the story continues, these divisions will begin to break down. Eventually the family structure that Ma tries to desperately to cling to, is decimated.

How does Tom Joad outmaneuver the truck driver who is reluctant to give him a ride?

One of the aspects of John Steinbeck’s writing that makes him so memorable and appealing is the way he is able to capture voice and movement of characters in vivid settings. This is apparent in Chapter 2, which takes place in a truck stop.

In the 1930s, the initial description of Tom’s clothes would have tipped a lot of people off that Tom is an “ex-con,” as convicts, just released from prison, were issued a new but typically ill-fitting suit as well as a pair of (usually) poorly fitted shoes.

As Tom continues towards his family home in his uncomfortable garb, he meets a trucker Although the rig’s owner displays a sign proclaiming, “NO RIDERS,” quick-thinking Tom overcomes the company mandate:

The hitch-hiker stood up and looked across through the windows. “Could ya give me a lift, mister,”
The driver looked quickly back at the restaurant for a second. “Did you see the No Riders sticker on the win’shield?”
“Sure -- I seen it.  But sometimes a guy’ll be a good guy even if some rich bastard makes him carry a sticker.”

The trucker is in a bind. He surely knows Tom is an ex-con by the look of his clothing. But he also knows that he and Tom are both working-class people caught in a system in which they have almost no power. If he denies Tom the ride, he denies his own autonomy.

How does Man and the environment interact in The Grapes of Wrath?

The land is a character in this novel and an active one, although its means of pursuit might not appear to be aggressive on the surface. However, a closer look will reveal an incredibly mobile, even aggressive, landscape. Consider the opening paragraph of Chapter 3:

The concrete highway was edged with a mat of tangled, broken, dry grass, and the grass heads were heavy with oat beards to catch on a dog’s coat, and foxtails to tangle in a horse’s fetlocks, and clover burrs to fasten in sheep’s wool; sleeping life waiting to be spread and dispersed, every seed armed with an appliance of dispersal, twisting darts and parachutes for the wind, little spears and balls of tiny thorns, and all waiting for animals and for the wind, for a man’s trouser cuff or the hem of a woman’s skirt, all passive but armed with appliances of activity, still, but each possessed by the anlage of movement.

ACTIVE VERBS: catch, tangle,spread, dispersed, twisting, armed

STRONG NOUNS: darts, parachutes, spears, balls, thorns

STRONG ADJECTIVES: concrete, broken, dry, heavy, armed, twisting

There is a parallel to the Joads and the other “Okies” here as well. Although these impoverished families seem passive, at the mercy of the winds that blow them off their farms and the machinery which shoves them aggressively from one side of the country to the other, they too are armed with “appliances of activity” which will allow the people to replant and live again.

A land turtle crawls through this near war-zone-like environment:

And over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass: His hard legs and yellow-nailed feet threshed slowly through the grass…

It should be noted that there are parallels between the turtle and his “high domed” shell and the jalopies that traveled along Route 66 to California. These trucks were often piled so high with all of a family’s worldly possessions that the vehicles bore an uncanny resemblance to land turtles. Their movement, like the turtles, was necessarily slow due to the extreme weight the axles had to bear and the precarious arrangement of the items salvaged from homes.

There are further parallels to the turtle and the Okies. As the turtle crawls along, the head of a wild oat becomes trapped in his shell. A laborious climb up a steep hill does not dislodge the oat and finally the turtle plods across the highway as it had originally intended. 

At this point, two cars come speeding down the highway. The first car is driven by a woman:

A sedan driven by a forty-year-old woman approached.  She saw the turtle and swung to the right, off the highway, the wheels screamed and a cloud of dust boiled up. Two wheels lifted for a moment then settled.  The car skidded back onto the road, and went on, but more slowly. The turtle had jerked into its shell, but now it hurried on, for the highway was burning hot.

The second driver is male. 

[T]he driver saw the turtle and swerved to hit it. His front wheel struck the edge of the shell, flipped the turtle like a tiddly-wink, spun it like a coin, and rolled it off the highway.  The truck went back to its course along the right side.

The differences between female protective action and male aggressive destruction are readily apparent. As for the turtle, he, like the many other aspects of the natural landscape, carries on:

Lying on its back, the turtle was tight in its shell for a long time. But at last its legs waved in the air, reaching for something to pull it over. Its front foot caught a piece of quartz and little by little the shell pulled over and flopped upright. The wild oat head fell out and three of the spearhead seeds stuck in the ground.

The turtle, like the Joads and many of the other travelers, eventually makes it to the other side of the road. It plants the seed where life will be renewed. The migrants must create new life in a new place, much like the turtle has done.

How does Casy echo the convictions of American Transcendentalism?

At its core, the philosophy known as American Transcendentalism is the belief in an ideal spiritual state that “transcends” the physical. This state can only be realized through an individual's intuition. It cannot be achieved through organized religion (or any religion).

The tenets of American Transcendentalism were articulated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, (the man often identified as the “father” of American Transcendentalism) in his 1841 essay, “The Oversoul.”

There are four major themes in “The Oversoul”:

1. The existence and nature of the human soul. 

[T]he soul in man is not an organ, but animates and exercises all the organs; is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of comparison, but uses these as hands and feet; is not a faculty, but a light; is not the intellect or the will, but the master of the intellect and the will; is the background of our being, in which they lie, — an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed. From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.

2. The relationship between the soul and the personal ego.

As with events, so is it with thoughts. When I watch that flowing river, which, out of regions I see not, pours for a season its streams into me, I see that I am a pensioner; not a cause, but a surprised spectator of this ethereal water; that I desire and look up, and put myself in the attitude of reception, but from some alien energy the visions come.

3. The relationship of one human soul to another.

Childhood and youth see all the world in them. But the larger experience of man discovers the identical nature appearing through them all. Persons themselves acquaint us with the impersonal. In all conversation between two persons, tacit reference is made, as to a third party, to a common nature.

4. The relationship of the human soul to God.

If we will not interfere with our thought, but will act entirely, or see how the thing stands in God, we know the particular thing, and every thing, and every man. For the Maker of all things and all persons stands behind us, and casts his dread omniscience through us over things.

Casy come very close to articulating the major points of Emerson’s philosophy. When he first meets Tom, who is walking home after a stint in prison, Casy explains the first steps on his new path:

"I was a preacher," said the man seriously. "Reverend Jim Casy—was a Burning Busher. Used to howl out the name of Jesus to glory. And used to get an irrigation ditch so squirmin' full of repented sinners half of 'em like to drowned. But not no more," he sighed. "Jus Jim Casy now. Ain't got the call no more. Got a lot of sinful idears—but they seem kinda sensible."

Tom tries to cajole Casy, telling him how fondly his family recalled his preaching, but the man is not moved. He replies:

"I ain't preachin' no more much. The sperit ain't in the people much no more; and worse'n that, the sperit ain't in me no more. 'Course now an' again the sperit gets movin' an' I rip out a meetin', or when folks sets out food I give 'em a grace, but my heart ain't in it. I on'y do it 'cause they expect it."

Then later:

“Before I knowed it, I was sayin’ out loud, “The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice and some ain’t nice but that’s as far as any man got a right to say.”

As he continues to verbalize his feelings, perhaps for the first time, Casy arrives at this conclusion:

“Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,” I figgered, “’maybe it’s all men an’ all women… all men got one big soul and ever’body a part of. Now I sat there thinkin’ it, and all of a suddent- I knew it. I knew it so deep down it was true, and I still know it.”

To what extent are the names of the characters in The Grapes of Wrath symbolic?

Authors frequently use characters’ names as symbols (symbols, or symbolism, in literature means of conveying ideas and qualities). Here are a few of Steinbeck’s symbolic character names in The Grapes of Wrath.

The Joads

The family name is symbolic in at least two ways. First, it recalls the biblical story of Job, the man who endures a variety of horrors and lives on. It also is one letter removed from “road,” which can mean either the literal road, in this case, Route 66, the highway that runs from Oklahoma to California, and it may also mean the metaphorical road the family must take on their mental journey to accept a new way of life.

Muley Graves

Muley Graves is the only person left near Tom Joad’s old home when Tom returns from prison (accompanied by Jim Casy). While everyone else has decided to move on, Muley, like a mule, an animal renowned for its stubbornness, remains. His last name, “Graves,” suggests that his refusal to change will be a death sentence. Here are two excerpts from Chapter 6, in which Muley responds to Casy’s question about what has happened.


“Them dirty sons-a-bitches. I’m tellin’ ya, men, I’m stayin’. They ain’t gettin’ rid a me. If they throw me off, I’ll come back, an’ if they figgur I’ll be quiet underground, why, I’ll take a couple-three sons-a-bitches along for company. . . “I ain’t a-goin’. My pa come here fifty years ago. An’ I ain’t a-goin’.”


“I’ve been walkin’ around like an ol’ graveyard ghos’.”

Muley says this four times in his conversation with Casy and Tom.

Finally, Muley’s own name indicates he will be the last of the line. Mules are typically unable to reproduce.

Jim Casy

The preacher’s initials, “J.C.” could be symbolic of Jesus Christ. Like Christ, Casy “preaches” love, tolerance, and acceptance. Casy, too, ends up sacrificing his life for those he loves.

When Casy is murdered in Chapter 26, his cries echo those of Christ who asks that those responsible for his death be forgiven (“Forgive them, Father. They know now what they do.” Luke 23:34):

Casy stared blindly at the light. He breathed heavily. "Listen," he said. "You fellas don' know what you're doin'. You're helpin' to starve kids. . . . Casy went on, "You don' know what you're a-doin'."


Noah is Tom’s enigmatic younger brother. Slow-witted, Noah never seems to truly be a part of the family’s decision to depart. After a brief time on the road, Noah wanders off down by the river, reminiscent of the biblical Noah who also leaves his homeland via water to face an uncertain future.

Connie Rivers

Rose of Sharon’s husband’s name belies the fact that he will not be the stable force that his young wife expects him to be. His first name “Connie,” conveys the sense of being “conned” or tricked. Connie may not be intentionally conning his bride and her family; he is, however, overwhelmed with the responsibilities of being a husband and soon-to-be father, leaving his home, and not having any clear means of financial support for himself or anyone else. He and Rose of Sharon imagine a good life together, but every conversation has a feeling of children “playing house” rather than a realistic vision of their future. 

Rose of Sharon

Rose of Sharon’s odd name has its origins in the Bible. In the Song of Solomon 2:1, Rose of Sharon is identified as the wife of Solomon who refers to herself as the “Rose of Sharon.” The name “Sharon” is used elsewhere in the Bible to refer to level places or plains. In The Grapes of Wrath, Rose of Sharon will be the hope of her people; she alone will bring their past to their future. Although her unborn child is stillborn, she has the ability to nurture and the hope is that she will be fruitful again. The enigmatic smile as she offers her breast milk to the starving man is a vivid illustration of her strength and power:   

For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. "You got to," she said.

How can Jim Casy be understood as a Christ-like figure?

The character of Jim Casy moves from being an energetic preacher to shunning God. He then becomes something of an apostle. Finally, as his initials "J.C." suggest, the character becomes Christ-like.

The home everyone once knew in this rural section of Oklahoma is gone. For the few people who remain, the need for a leader grows stronger. Casy, like the Apostle Paul, reluctantly assumes the mantle of leadership. While he can never again embrace the former evangelical role many in his community expect from him, Jim Casy becomes more and more Christ-like until eventually, like Christ, Casy dies a martyr’s death.

As the novel opens, Tom Joad finds the former preacher resting under a tree. Tom does not recognize the old family friend at first; Casy reminds Tom how they know one another

"I was a preacher," said the man seriously. "Reverend Jim Casy—was a Burning Busher. Used to howl out the name of Jesus to glory. And used to get an irrigation ditch so squirmin' full of repented sinners half of 'em like to drowned. But not no more," he sighed. "Jus' Jim Casy now. Ain't got the call no more. Got a lot of sinful idears—but they seem kinda sensible."

Despite Casy’s disillusionment, evidence of his good moral character is presented early on. Casy listens patiently to Muley Graves, the lone resident of the now-deserted land that Tom had once called home. Muley tells Tom and Casy about the plight of the people, of the disrespect for their land,their families, and their homes. The injustice of it all ignites passion in Casy, perhaps really for the first time. It is as if he is experiencing his own private Pentecost:

Jim Casy had been staring at the dying fire, and his eyes had grown wider and his neck muscles stood higher. Suddenly he cried, “I got her! If ever a man got a dos of the sperit, I got her. Got her all of a flash!” He jumped to his feet and paced back and forth, his head swinging. “Had a tent one time. Drawed as much as five hundred people ever’ night. That’s before either you fellas seen me.”

Because the reader knows Casy, unlike a lot of traveling preachers, has no monetary or self-aggrandizing motives, it is easier to trust him as the landscape, and the family, changes.

Casy's development as an apostle continues as the family prepares for their frightful journey into the unknown. When it is time to head out, and it is decided that Casy will accompany the family, Ma asks him to say a prayer. To the surprise of all who had known him, this is not the fire-and-brimstone preacher of the past, but the new, introspective man of spiritual matters. As the family bows their heads, Casy tells the assembled Joads:

“I been thinkin’, “ he said. “I been in the hills, thinkin’, almost you might say like Jesus went into the wilderness to think His way out of a mess of troubles…

Seems like Jesus got all messed up with troubles, and he couldn’t figure nothin’ out, an’ He got to feelin’ what the hell good is it all, an’ what’s the use fightin’ and figurin’. Got tired, got good and tired, an’ His sperit all wore out. Jus’ about to come to the conclusion, the hell with it. An’ so he went into the wilderness. . . .
I ain’t sayin’ I’m like Jesus,” the preacher went on. “But I got tired like Him, an ‘ I got mixed up like Him, an’ I went into the wilderness like HIm, without no campin’ stuff. Nighttime I’d lay on my back an’ look up at the stars; morning I’d set an ‘ watch the sun come up…” 

While Casy is not arrogant enough to believe himself on par with Christ, he does recognize that perhaps, like the apostles, he possesses a gift for prophecy. When Casy reflects on the fate of Muley Graves, he sadly remarks,

“Course Muley's crazy, all right. Creepin' aroun' like a coyote; that's boun' to make him crazy. He'll kill somebody purty soon an' they'll run him down with dogs. I can see it like a prophecy."

Casy continues to be a spiritual touchstone throughout the novel. Initially, Casy feels much like the Apostle Paul in the Bible. Paul is frequently called the “Reluctant Apostle” because he does not feel worthy of the task given to him by God, that of leading the people away from everything they have known into unfamiliar territory. Like Paul, Casy has initial feelings of helplessness and unworthiness. He worriedly tells Tom,

“I got the call to lead people, an’ no place to lead them.”

But eventually, Casy comes to accept his role. In the final moment of his life, Casy calls out:

"Listen," he said. "You fellas don' know what you're doin'. You're helpin' to starve kids. . . .You don' know what you're a-doin'."

Casy has lived up to his initials, J.C. as his final word echo those of Christ himself, who, as he is being nailed to the cross, cries out, “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do,” (Luke 23:34). 

How does injustice exacerbate the plight of the poor?

One of the purposes of the intercalary chapters is to show that not only the Joads are suffering the injustices of much of the capitalist system; thousands of people who must also abandon their homes and ways of life are similarly suffering the slings and arrows of misfortune.

Perhaps the most obvious way that the lowest of the classes are being taken advantage of is in the used car lots that have sprung up all over the sides of highways like intransigent summer weeds. Like weeds, these “dealerships” suck everything they can out of their sources, in this case, the poor, who have no other option but to take what their meager funds can get them.

In a stratified society, those who are just a little bit better off than those below seem to feel a need to mentally place themselves far above the very low. The men who run these impromptu car lots, although no where near even middle class status, nonetheless treat their customers as almost subhuman. Even though each of their customers has very little to spend and must make the best decision for their families, the salesmen care nothing about their circumstances; they care only about how much graft can be gleaned from a particular mark. They watch the potential customers with a mixture of greed and loathing:

Those sons-of-bitches over there ain't buying. Every yard gets 'em. They're lookers. Spend all their time looking. Don't want to buy no cars; take up your time. Don't give a damn for your time. Over there, them two people—no, with the kids. Get 'em in a car. Start 'em at two hundred and work down. They look good for one and a quarter. Get 'em rolling. Get 'em out in a jalopy. Sock it to 'em! They took our time. Owners with rolled-up sleeves. Salesmen, neat, deadly, small intent eyes watching for weaknesses.

Weaknesses, like a husband’s love for his wife, are easy to exploit, as are the man’s concern for his family in general. Further complicating matters is the fact that the majority of these immigrants have never had to deal with people who are aiming to con them. They are confronted with terms they do not know and scare tactics regarding their family’s safety, the veracity of the threats impossible to gauge.

The salesmen also prey on their customer’s social and moral codes. Not far removed from the lower class themselves, they understand how to exploit the desperate travelers’ senses of fairness.

If that doesn’t work, the salesmen change tactics and move to insults. One of the most egregious insults was to be called a “piker,” someone who is stingy and will only place very small bets:

Time and again, Steinbeck shows that community and justice has been replaced by the importance of the individual and injustice. These charlatans will do whatever they have to do to sell a car, and care nothing of the consequences for the customer once the car has been driven off their lot. Underhanded tactics to do whatever it took were not isolated in the time of the Dust Bowl, but commonplace. One trick was to put sawdust in the engine; doing so would briefly quiet any banging noises and also temporarily block any leaks. The “fix,” however, was very temporary and the car salesmen knew it:

"Listen, Jim, I heard that Chevvy's rear end. Sounds like bustin' bottles. Squirt in a couple quarts of sawdust. Put some in the gears, too. We got to move that lemon for thirty-five dollars. Bastard cheated me on that one."

For the displaced families, the choice was take it or leave it.

Why is Tom Joad so reluctant to leave Oklahoma?

His family is gone. His home is destroyed. His friends are nowhere to be found. Even though there is nothing tangible to keep Tom Joad in his old neighborhood, he has one primary reason for his reluctance to leave Oklahoma: parole.

"Ever'body's goin' west," Tom said. "I got me a parole to keep. Can't leave the state."

Curious, Muley asks:

"How they treat ya there in McAlester? My woman's cousin was in McAlester an' they give him hell."

Tom replies:

"It ain't so bad," said Joad. "Like ever'place else. They give ya hell if ya raise hell."

McAlester prison opened in 1908 and was a relatively young facility when Tom Joad was admitted. Tom had been there four years, and was released three years early (“Sure I been in McAlester. Been there four years.” - Chapter 2; ). Based on these dates, it is likely that Tom Joad was incarcerated in McAlester from 1933-1937.

The doors locked behind Tom just as the storms were increasing in intensity. According to PBS’s “Timeline: Surviving the Dustbowl. 1931-1934,

“Great dust storms spread from the Dust Bowl area. The drought is the worst ever in U.S. history, covering more than 75 percent of the country and affecting 27 states severely.”

Before Tom went away, however, he was aware that some weather anomalies were occurring in Oklahoma. In 1932, PBS reports, fourteen significant dust storms had occurred. By 1933, that number had doubled.

The dust storms continued to occur, becoming even more frequent and powerful. On April 14, 1933, an horrific event known as the “Black Dustbowl” occurred, displacing some 300,000 tons of top soil and most greatly affecting the areas of Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. Then, in 1934, just one year after Tom went away, the “Yearbook of Agriculture” announced that,

Approximately 35 million acres of formerly cultivated land have essentially been destroyed for crop production…. 100 million acres now in crops have lost all or most of the topsoil; 125 million acres of land now in crops are rapidly losing topsoil.

When Tom is dropped off by the trucker, in 1937, what had been some abnormalities at home had become unmitigated disasters, and not all of them, of course, were weather-related. Banks were seizing farms by the hundreds, forcing their residents to go elsewhere. As the land was unusable, these displaced families had to go elsewhere. 

The novel does not reveal how much, if any, of this was known to Tom prior to his release but his dismay indicates that he was ignorant of most of the events of the prior four years.

Tom’s world from 1933 to 1937 was necessarily interior although because of his assignment to a work crew, he could not have been completely in the dark about the dust storms. Tom, like thousands of others, was a participant in prison labor. Prisons had been in existence in America for about 100 years by the late 1930s and had remained largely unchanged: most were terrible and inmates were given only the bare necessities to survive. Privacy was not an option. What did change was the numbers of people, mostly men, who found themselves behind bars in by the late 1930s; incarceration rates climbed from 79 to 137 per 100,000 residents between 1925-1929.

Prison labor had long been a part of life for the incarcerated, who, unlike free citizens, could be compelled to work. While there were large numbers of black men and other minorities assigned to chain gangs and other work, the numbers of white men forced to work was relatively low in comparison. However, by 1934, many more white men were conscripted into service. The reason for this can be found in the growing numbers of inmates crammed in too-small housing. Riots were flaring more and more frequently and prison officials lobbied Congress to create a work program and in 1934, the 73rd Congress approved the Federal Prison Industries.

It was into this mix of circumstances that Tom Joad was thrown. It is likely that Tom worked on a road crew, as evidenced by the location of the callouses on his hands, which the trucker who lets Tom ride with him observes:

“I seen your hands. Been swingin' a pick or an ax or a sledge.”

Road crew workers often worked from sunup to sundown. Given the location of the work, sometimes cots were set up and the prisoners guarded while they slept so that they could be back on the job as soon as there was enough sunlight to do so.

No one would want to return to prison. But in 1937, for Tom Joad, violating his parole meant a return to subhuman conditions and a life of brutal work.


Prisons: History - Modern Prisons - Incarceration, War, Imprisonment, and Prisoners - JRank Articles

Why is Uncle John so unhappy?

The emotional pain people carry can often be masked. Some will withdraw into themselves, others will lash out; still others will turn to a crutch, such as liquor, as a poultice for pain. Sometimes, the wound is very deep. For Uncle John, his distress is so great that he protects himself in all of these ways: by being solitary, by drinking, and by developing an exterior so tough that he can never be hurt again.

For many years, John has kept to himself, even though his extended family lives relatively close by. When Tom returns home and learns from Muley that the family has gone to stay with John for a time, Tom expresses surprise:

"Damn' if I know how they're all sleepin' at Uncle John's. He on'y got one room an' a cookin' leanto, an' a little bit of a barn. Must be a mob there now."

As Tom and Casy discuss where and why the family has traveled the eight miles to John’s small home, Casy inquires about John:

“Just a lone man, ain't he? I don't recollect much about him.”

Tom replies:

Lonest goddamn man in the world," said Joad. "Crazy kind of son-of-a-bitch, too—somepin like Muley, on'y worse in some ways. Might see 'im anywheres—at Shawnee, drunk, or visitin' a widow twenty miles away, or workin' his place with a lantern.

Soon, it is revealed what has happened to Tom’s uncle to make him so unhappy. When John’s wife was four months pregnant when she complained to her husband of being in pain. Doctors, of course, cost money. John decided to wait it out and hope the pain got better. It did not and his wife died during the night.

John never forgave himself. Until this happened, Tom recalls, Uncle John had been an “easy-goin’ fella.” But the guilt of his negligence haunted him. For two years, the man “walks aroun' like he don't see nothin' an' he prays' then he ain't the same. Sort of wild.” When any of his many nieces and nephews fell ill, John sent for the doctor, until Tom Senior told his brother to stop it. John complied, whether due to his brother’s admonition or a lack of money or both. But his guilt did not subside. For years after his wife’s death, John tried to make up for his “sin” with small acts of kindness. “Give away about ever'thing he got, an' still he ain't very happy," Tom tells Casy.

Uncle John’s story recounts an individual experience. Just as Steinbeck focuses in on the Joads and out on the larger similarly-suffering population, John’s story is a reminder of Plato’s admonition: “Be kind to everyone you meet for everyone is fighting a harder battle.”

How is Muley Graves characterized by animal imagery?

When Tom Joad, along with the former preacher, Jim Casy, returns to the property he once called home, he finds it completely abandoned. Not a soul he used to know, neither friend nor family member, is anywhere to be found at first. Then Muley Graves, an old neighbor, appears in the shadows, walking towards them.

Truculently, Muley tells Tom and Casy what has happened to make their former home a ghost town. He recalls how the emissaries of the bank, using their tractors like tanks, forced the people off their ancestral land and how he personally refuses to leave.

Not only were the people displaced, they were also subjected to callous treatment. The tractor drivers plowed on, disregarding any and all of the history of ground they churn over. Muley remembers the history, however. In doing so, he likens himself to two animals: a buck deer and a billygoat. He points out key locations of his past to Tom and Casy:

"Like there's a place over by our forty; in a gully they's a bush. Fust time I ever laid with a girl was there. Me fourteen an' stampin' an' jerkin' an' snortin' like a buck deer, randy as a billygoat."

Muley goes on to mention his father’s fatal injury. His father is killed by a bull:

"An' there's the place down by the barn where Pa got gored to death by a bull. An' his blood is right in that groun', right now. Mus' be. Nobody never washed it out. An' I put my han' on that groun' where my own pa's blood is part of it."

All three of these animals, buck deer, billy goat, and bull have something in common: associations with male virility.

The fact that Muley’s father is killed by a stronger male animal does not bode well for his son. In fact, Muley’s own name is indication that he will be the last of the line. Mules are typically unable to reproduce.

Tom and Casy express dismay about what has happened and concern for the person Muley has become: scared, flight-prone, and vengeful. When a car approaches, but is still quite far away, Muley barks at Tom and Casy to hide themselves. Tom is surprised by Muley’s timidity.

Muley eventually replies:

"Yeah!" he said. "I was mean like a wolf. Now I'm mean like a weasel. When you're huntin' somepin you're a hunter, an' you're strong. Can't nobody beat a hunter. But when you get hunted—that's different. Somepin happens to you."

Before the upheaval, Muley compares himself to a wolf, another virile animal and one renowned for its preference for living and hunting in packs. But now Muley has no pride in his own male-ness and his “pack” has dispersed.

No longer a wolf, Muley now identifies with a weasel, an animal frequently associated with spite and cunning. Muley is aware that he is no longer the strong hunter, the wolf, but the conniving and vengeful weasel.

How does Steinbeck present men in The Grapes of Wrath?

Steinbeck, a careful linguist, repeats one word in connection with the character of Pa Joad a total of five times in Chapter Eight. This is no accident, but seemingly a deliberate association with the "power" men often exercise in the world:

  • His face, squared by a bristling pepper and salt beard, was all drawn down to the forceful chin, a chin thrust out and built out by the stubble beard which was not so grayed on the chin, and gave weight and force to its thrust.
  • His eyes were brown, black-coffee brown, and he thrust his head forward when he looked at a thing, for his bright dark eyes were failing.
  • Pa's chin thrust out, and he looked back down the road for a moment.
  • The old man thrust out his bristly chin, and he regarded Ma with his shrewd, mean, merry eyes.

The word “thrust” is often used to describe males who are having sex; being able to participate in sexual activity is frequently seen as the mark of a man. Sexual relations, of course, often lead to procreation.

Before Pa must leave his home, he feels in control of his life: virile, able-bodied, and the head of his household. However, just as the tractors churn up the land they claim, social roles are being overturned and upended as well. The more Pa becomes disassociated with the roles he had previously embraced, the more impotent, helpless, and dependent he will become.